DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. Picture Credit: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Sink Michael Gove’s Irish Sea border

The NIP is destroying the Belfast Agreement before it’s even fully implemented

Artillery Row

“We’ll fix it later.” 

The four words oft repeated to the Democratic Unionist Party by Conservatives trying to deal with the Northern Ireland shaped hole in the Withdrawal Agreement.  For some it was a lie. For some it was to salve their consciences, Brexit had to be partly saved lest it be lost completely. Some meant it.

Over the past two years this split personality has tried to resolve itself within government and wrestle with the practical difficulties of the Protocol. Which even its cheerleaders have come close to admitting needs tackling.

Once is accident. Twice is coincidence. Frost did not stay for a conspiracy to be confirmed

When Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, he had to pick through the ashes of the May/Robbins ‘strategy’ and the sea border concession, made to the EU and Dublin’s amazement. One that, coincidentally, so bound the whole UK towards a “solution” inside the Customs Union.

Johnson’s two negotiation aims were a path to the UK genuinely leaving the EU and no sea border inside the country.  He partially achieved the former (Great Britain fully left and NI didn’t) but in the process May’s two stage sea border — which was to be inevitably triggered by the backstop, if Brexit was achieved by GB — happened in a single instalment.

In any negotiation when the other is weakened the clear temptation is to take full advantage.  However, an agreement is about relationships too. Maximum advantage taken harms the future relationship. As is remarked of treaties in the Wolf Hill trilogy, “it’s the goodwill that matters. When that runs out, the treaty is broken, whatever the terms say.”

The EU did take full advantage. The result was sparse goodwill left, and what there was saw an unworkable Protocol rapidly burn through it. We knew what they thought about us — we heard what they said and saw what they did — so our confidence in their promises matched that past performance.

Without DUP support it was impossible for May’s deal to pass the 2017 parliament: a point whose arithmetical significance seems to have escaped Gavin Barwell’s, May’s disastrous chief of staff, who, it turned out, would rather destroy his leader, and get Boris’s Brexit, than change his policy. A general election was the only way around this.

Boris Johnson’s December 2017 victory saw his deal rammed through on the back of the 80-strong Tory majority.  The task of “fixing it later” was given to Michael Gove. Surely there was no greater believer in the Union than he, for he had told everyone it was so. He began his time with the roar of his Command paper, a bare minimum border and nothing but. He ended with a whimper in a deal that promised to build a full sea border for the EU inside the UK.

When this international trade regulation system descended upon an internal market distribution network with a week’s notice chaos reigned. Shelves emptied, GB companies refused to supply to NI and greater harm was only prevented by the unilateral British extension of “grace periods”. 

Arlene Foster was able to get Boris to appreciate the failure of Gove and he was duly replaced by Lord Frost.  Frost was no stranger to the issues or EU negotiating tactics. He produced a second Command paper. The position here was that there should be a protocol but nothing like the present one. There were sufficient yelps from the EU that indicated a similar line was actually being pursued in private, contrary to the disastrous May/Barwell/Robbins approach of being even weaker behind closed doors than you were in public. Yet the timetable continued to slip.  End of October. Mid-November. Christmas. 

Pro-protocol parties fawn over crumbs from the EU

Any success achieved by Frost would highlight Gove’s failure and the manoeuvrings began. Gove publicly undermined the potential use of Article 16, the agreed safety valve, at the British-Irish council meeting.  A few weeks later a Downing Street briefing, quickly rebuffed, undermined Frost again.  Once is accident. Twice is coincidence. Frost did not stay for a conspiracy to be confirmed.

The loss of Frost was unnerving for the DUP with Truss an unknown quantity. The potential involvement of the Foreign Office was a particular concern.  Frost’s team remained intact, the substance didn’t appear to change but the timetable became manana, manana.

But what are the DUP complaining about? The Protocol is the “best of both worlds”. This is a Theresa May-era myth that is still perpetuated.  The best of both worlds for NI would be unhindered access to and from the rest of the UK goods market; full beneficiaries of UK trade deals; under the UK state aid regime; unhindered access to and from the EU goods single market; full beneficiaries of EU trade deals. 

What NI has in fact got is half membership of the UK goods market; only part inclusion in UK trade deals; out of the UK state aid regime; in the EU goods single market; excluded from EU trade deals.  

This economic contortionism means the business losers (the majority of NI companies that are UK focused) outnumber the winners (the minority that source from the Irish Republic or are EU focused) with NI consumers the real victims as they lose choice, face higher costs and UK wide pricing policies under threat if the Protocol ever becomes fully operational, as Brussels and Dublin want. In other words, the current disruption caused by the NIP is just a base camp for the chaos its “rigourous implementation” would cause.

One economist has estimated the Protocol will cost NI £900m a year but what is certain is the UK government is spending millions every week on the sea border through administrative and cost supports. Money that could be spent on NI’s skills deficit or decent roads in southern Scotland for NI goods to get to the GB market.

But why escalate? Everyone wants solutions. The EU and even Alliance, Sinn Fein, Greens and the SDLP, who began by demanding that “rigorous implementation” for the Protocol they all backed, now claim to want “solutions”.

Do they really?

While Šefčovič was claiming to want solutions an official EU report condemned the checks in place as insufficient. NI, with a population of 1.8m, has 20% of all checks of the entire EU and that is not enough to sate Brussels bureaucrats.

Pro-protocol parties fawn over crumbs from the EU and castigate anyone who dares ask for more.  They aren’t interested in answers “Made for Northern Ireland”, only in subservience to EU dogma.

The solutions to the border are multiple; sectoral or business size exemptions; NI-only green lanes; simplified procedures; off-site inspections; technology; mutual enforcement mechanisms; intelligence led approaches, no risk not full risk assumptions etc.  However, the EU and pro-protocol parties are in a self-made solutions cul-de-sac.

With the aim of the EU and Irish nationalism to make the land border unsolvable (underpinned with threats of violence which go universally tolerated by the press and non-unionist politicians alike) there is not a single solution which isn’t dismissed as unworkable.  Sometimes in politics positions must change but it is the next question NIP-enforcers truly wish to avoid. If these intra-UK sea border solutions do work, then why can’t they work for a land border between the UK and the EU?

The DUP put up with being everyone’s favourite punching bag

Never mind that, this is just the DUP being unreasonable as usual. Actually the DUP highlighted the issues with a sea border from the day it was raised.  It defeated Theresa May three times over it (a lesson Barwell and Julian Smith, the then chief whip, and subsequent bitter critic of unionists, signally failed to learn anything from, except who to dislike). Johnson had to gamble on an election to get round them. With his deal passed, Gove’s command paper was the bare minimum for the DUP. The EU treated it like bog roll and Gove let them.

When the real harms of the Protocol became clear action was promised but little has been rolled back.  Arlene Foster partly fell because of the Protocol, and her ultimate successor, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, MP, still gave the government space. This included going beyond the DUP’s own deadline for practical amelioration of the Protocol, which was the end of October. A few weeks ago when the final warning was given Sir Jeffrey still offered the government a way out — set out the plan and timetable to implement Frost’s command paper.  The Government ignored it.  A charge of unionism being too flexible is easier to sustain than the usual prejudice against them of being too unreasonable.

For more than two years, the DUP put up with being everyone’s favourite punching bag. But more importantly Northern Ireland’s very real Protocol problems were just cynically denied, ignored, or long fingered. For over two years, the DUP and Northern Ireland have been waiting for solutions like Vladimir and Estragon on Godot.  Vladimir couldn’t wait anymore, the DUP First Minister had to resign to force events. Estragon shouldn’t be expected to wait alone.

“Fix it later” they say. Well later was yesterday, today will have to do, but tomorrow isn’t good enough.

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